April 10, 2008

When the news flashed across my screen Monday, I did a fist pump when I saw the name Gene Weingarten as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Gene is the resident humorist and writer extraordinaire at The Washington Post and a former colleague of mine at The Miami Herald, editor of the magazine when the paper had one.

I rushed to the blogosphere to see what people were saying about Gene’s piece, a tour de force in which he observed what happened when he got famed violinist Joshua Bell to play, anonymously, at rush hour at a crowded Washington, D.C., Metro station.

What I found was The Post’s Joel Achenbach, a Weingarten disciple and a former Herald colleague, talking about how Gene and his Post colleagues won six Pultizers last Monday. It’s worth repeating:

The Post has just won six Pulitzer Prizes, which looks like a typo. It was a newsroom-wide triumph — Metro, National, Investigative, Foreign, Financial, Magazine. Within that Variety Pack of journalism, there’s a common ingredient — something we too seldom discuss when we cogitate about how to reinvent the business model: Reporting.

Original reporting still matters. It’s probably our best gimmick. It’s what we do (imperfectly to be sure) better than anyone else in the news business. It also can’t be easily replaced on the cheap by some other information-delivery system.

Achenbach then explained what made Gene’s story such an exquisite piece of writing:

The story is immaculate. There’s not a loose word in the whole thing. You could pick that story up, turn it upside down, and shake it and nothing would drop out. Maybe there’s something in there I missed – but it sure looks like everything’s bolted down.

Moreover, nothing gets into the Post magazine without going through a fine filter of editing, revision, copy-editing, fact-checking, and proof-reading. . . A lot of that labor is unglorious [inglorious? Paging the copy editor!]. So I’d put, as a newspaper virtue right up there with Original Reporting, what you might simply call Sweating the Small Stuff. Which also isn’t cheap, or easily automated.

We’ve talked a lot about these themes in The Write Stuff. I know you’ve heard the same exhortations from your Craft professors, and others. It’s not that we’re ignoring the challenges to the media business these days. Far from it. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on learning how to be comfortable in all the platforms — print, online, blogs and broadcast. Yet, if you learn nothing else at CUNY but how to report and write accurately and effectively, and sweat the small stuff, you’ll be armed with the skills and the mindset that can’t be duplicated by any distribution system or marketing scheme. There’ll always be a place for a good reporter.

Shout Outs

In that spirit, we salute examples of good reporting that led to strong writing. Kate Lurie literally got the name of the dog in her delightful piece in Chelsea Now on how pet-pampering seems recession-proof:

As she tried to usher a large, freshly coiffed dog named Humphrey into a kennel, Elle Wong, a bubbly co-owner of Towne House Grooming, asked brightly, “So, is it official? Are we in a recession?”

Similarly, we liked the details Linnea Covington got in her story about up-and-coming songstress Shara Worden. In a quick paragraph, a reader learned a lot about what shaped Worden’s musical life:

Worden’s love of the music scene isn’t surprising as she grew up surrounded by musicians, listening to Top 40 on her radio, and indulging in the Michael Jackson and Joan Jett records her father, a national accordion champion, would bring home from the library. Musically inspired since the age of 3, when she composed her first song using the sounds from a toy cash register, Worden was performing in community musical productions by the age of 8 as well as studying the piano.

Heather Appel captured the scene at a Passaic coffee shop with the kinds of observation that put you inside the scene:

It’s 8:30 on a Thursday morning, and Joe Nazimek and John Mancuso are sitting at Marina Stationers, coffee cups in hand, chuckling over a handwritten sign that reads “Trespassers will be Shot. Survivors will be shot again.”

Writing Tips

Last week we shared with you four key questions that award-winning writer David Von Drehle uses to help himself craft a nut graf. To refresh you, they are:

  1. Why does it matter?
  2. What’s the point?
  3. Why is this story being told?
  4. What does it say about life, about the world, about our times?

Fittingly, we asked Gene Weingarten this week what advice he gives budding feature writers:

Every feature story, no matter how small or limited the subject matter may seem to be, should really be about The Meaning of Life. That is my signature line, and I believe it.

While that may sound daunting, it’s Gene’s way of saying that you’ve got to ask yourself what you want readers to take away from your story. When you can answer that question, you’re on your way to a good nut graf and a more compelling read.

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